Tag Archives: creating female characters

POV: Writing a letter from Bridey

'60s model Jean Shrimpton

’60s model Jean Shrimpton

As part of a blog tour, I was asked to write something from Bridey’s point of view. Eighty-five percent of What You Don’t Know Now is written from her POV, so I wasn’t sure how I could write something fresh that would fit into the narrative. Then I thought — a letter!

So I skimmed through the book to find a time when she had a chance to write in a pivotal moment. After all, she tells Sara (who writes in her travel “log” every chance she gets), “I don’t have anything interesting to write home about,” But that’s before she really gets to know Alessandro.

So here’s the letter. It’s written to Bridey’s best friend at home, Dena, who made a dress for Bridey that appears in an incident in Ulm, Germany (also pivotal to what happens down the line) and threw a bon voyage party for Bridey with her friends.

I had so much fun getting back into Bridey’s head, I just might incorporate letters into the sequel!


July 27, 1967                                                                                                       Assisi, Italy

Dear Dena,

It’s 10p.m. here and I’m killing some time so I thought I’d write you. I’m sorry I haven’t sent any postcards or anything — you all must be disappointed in me, after that bon voyage party you threw!

The thing is — something incredible has happened. I still can’t believe what happened tonight and I had to tell someone.

We’re in Assisi right now. We got here yesterday. You know this tour is called the Summer Vacation Pilgrimage, right? “Quelle drag”, as you would say. Wait — I should probably tell you about some of our trip up to this point before I get to the good part!

We left Venice at 7a.m. after what had to be the lamest 18th birthday ever (I’ll tell you when I get home). When we left Germany, we were sort of sad. Sort of. Mannheim was gross — we got lost and our tour guide stopped at a bar and picked up a drunk guy to help tell the driver, Roger (from Belgium) how to get to the hotel, which had BUGS in our bathroom!

Munich was cool, and I did get to meet a very studly Marine and — can you believe it — my mom actually allowed me out of her sight for two seconds to go with him to the Englisher Garten beer hall (outside in the park, so beautiful). Only because Father Clement (the priest on our tour) and the oldest (and only other) man, Papa Joe, were going there and it must have seemed kind of safe to Mum.

The Marine — Brian — turned out to be kind of a jerk (ish). Trying to put moves on me. Totally gung-ho about going to VIETNAM!! He wanted me to write to him and I said no. I do feel sort of bad about that, but — He just wasn’t my type.

(Wait until I tell you about who IS my type!)

We crossed into Austria through the Dolomites but we didn’t stop. Can you believe they counted that as one of the 7 countries we were supposed to visit in three weeks? Rip off.

The Dolomites were scary and spectacular. I could tell my mom was practically having a heart attack at how high we were (1,500 feet+ ), plus the road was like — wild with twists and turns.

“Get back to your type!” I can hear you saying.

So we get to Assisi from Venice. It’s so beautiful here, Dena! We went to dinner (praying it wasn’t breaded veal cutlet for the 1,000 time) and I was thinking how boring it was going to be. And then… the most beautiful, handsome waiter came to our table. I felt like I was hit by a bomb. He was flirting like mad with me, pretending to get my order wrong, giving me about ten pounds of butter for my bread, doing everything he could to get my attention. I tried to play it as cool as I could. Mum was ticked at him. He gave me a flower when we left. The tour just got A WHOLE LOT better.

I managed to see him again this afternoon on the terrace of our hotel. Sara and I went there to get some ice cream — Sara completely knew that wasn’t my real plan, but she’s been a doll this trip. So “Romeo” shows up and — well, we ended up talking. At first he was a huge tease, but it turns out he can speak English (pretty well!), French and some German. Sara left us alone and we had a chance to really talk. It’s like we were meant to meet. He’s — I feel so safe with him.

The reason I’m killing time is that — Dena, I can barely describe tonight. Tonight I feel as if my life has changed into something beyond anything I could ever hope for.

His name is Alessandro. He SANG to me at dinner — he’s won a scholarship (I think it’s like a scholarship) to sing opera in Rome in the fall. His voice is like — an angel, but an angel who’s sexy (if angels could be). I felt like everything inside me was taken over by him and his eyes and his voice…

And he’s asked me to go dancing with him tonight. I’m going. I’ll have to sneak out. But I’m going! Because I have never wanted to be with anyone so much in my life.

That’s why I had time to kill. Now it’s 10:45 and I have to sneak downstairs to meet him in the parking lot. No one knows but Sara– we’re sharing a room, I had to tell her. I pray to God she doesn’t cave and tell my mother I’ve gone! But I don’t care, I’m doing this no matter what.

I’m wearing that black sheath dress. You know the one. Wish me luck.




Character descriptions: About Tilla

Characters are a vital part of any novel. And the more you know about a character, the more a reader becomes invested in the story. For better or worse, we care about the characters. We love them, hate them, imagine them, root for them — they become as real to us (if the book does its job) as the people in our lives, if only for a time. So I’ve decided to give character descriptions of the people who inhabit Bridey’s world in 1967.

In What You Don’t Know Now, Tilla McKenna is the 38-year-old mother of the main character, Bridey. Tilla is a loving, overprotective mother of three, a stay-at-home mom (many were at that time in the late ’60s — young women married just after the Second World War, producing the Baby Boom). She’s still in her own prime — a strawberry blonde with a trim figure who is far less aware of her appeal than she is concerned about the attention her tall, shapely 18 year old is getting from men along their tour in Europe.

Tilla becomes increasingly afraid and suspicious of the unfamiliar in their travels. She has good reason to be, in a sense — they are about to experience the less savory side of Europe.

Here’s a little piece from an early version of the book — it got cut, but it’s a good example of what Tilla was thinking before a scary incident in Germany:

     Tilla McKenna chewed on a caramel from the bag she bought at a candy shop. She offered one to the girls. Caramels were the only thing she liked as a substitute for the cigarette she really wanted. She’d only packed a carton of her Pall Malls; she’d have to make them last. Unlike her sister, Corinne, she couldn’t find a joke in their trip so far. There’d been bumps in the road: No tour guide appeared until they reached Bonn. They were staying in third-class hotels not listed on their itinerary. They were lost on the road. Lost a lot. There were the roaches in the girls’ room the night before. It was just one thing after another.

There weren’t any names for vigilant moms back then, but there are now: Helicopter Mom, SmotherLove. If you’ve read the book, what did you think about Tilla? (My editor wanted to strangle her at times.)

Let me know what you thought!


Playing favorites with characters in a novel

Writing - who you must be

I had finished one of the drafts of What You Don’t Know Now and given it to Cindy, one of my Early Readers. One of her questions in feedback gave me a lot to think about.

“Are you Bridey?” she asked.

“Yes,” I said. “But to tell you the truth, I’m a part of all the characters.”

Bridey, her mother Tilla, her Aunt Corinne, her cousins Sara and little Francesca. Her Aunt Maura. And yes — the male characters: Alessandro, Father Clement, Hugh, Riordan, and 5-year-old Ian. I speak for all of them and they speak through me.

I love these characters.

I think you can love or hate the characters you create in fiction. Or love or hate pieces of them. And yes, I think you can have favorites.

WYDKN blog2

Years ago, I read The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane Howard and fell in love with this first of four books about the extended Cazelet family. We meet the characters in the summer of 1937 as they summer at their parents’ home in Sussex, England. The war looms ahead, but what I loved most was the way her child characters (four, I think) were written. And that inspired me to want to write my own child characters in this story.

I do love little Ian, bold and imaginative, looking for a father figure, all boy and too confident for his own good.

I love Alessandro for his pure heart and passion for his music and for his “Miss America,” Bridey. I loved writing in his voice.

But I also love challenging, arrogant, conflicted Riordan, I love his maleness and sexuality. I loved making him obnoxious and confusing to Bridey. And I love his heroic spirit and his gentleness with Bridey when she needed it most.

I love Sara. She’s smart, perceptive, funny, observant, and longs to be included. I love her shyness and loyalty to Bridey. I love that she writes her experiences and observations in her “log” but we never know what they are.

And I love poor, fearful, tiger-mother Tilla. I love her willingness to go out of her comfort zone just far enough to allow Bridey to get to Europe. I love her struggle to let go of her beloved daughter. I love how much she loves her husband at home in the States. I’m sorry I had to give her so much pain.

Are they my favorites? Maybe. My big hope is that in reading this book, readers will find their favorites, too.

And then tell me who they are. And why.